On Wednesday 27 June 2020, the Electoral Support Network of Southern Africa (ESN-SA) held its first regional public meeting under the theme “IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON DEMOCRACY AND SUSTAINABLE PEACE IN SOUTHERN AFRICA”. The meeting was hosted by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) which is currently hosting the Secretariat of the ESN-SA. ESN-SA is a network of domestic observer groups in Southern Africa working in the area of elections in Southern Africa. Its mission is to promote democratic elections in Southern Africa through networking of domestic observer groups. It aims to build the capacity of individual members and establish regional best practices, through mutual reinforcement and dialogue. The purpose of the meeting was to bring together electoral groups and experts to discuss how democracy and electoral processes have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly ongoing processes such as elections taking place amid the pandemic.
The meeting was moderated by Dr. Zefanias Matsimbe, an electoral expert with over 20 years of professional experience in electoral cycle support, working mainly in capacity building of electoral management bodies (EMBs) and CSOs in Africa. The first speaker on the panel, Dr. Victor Shale, an expert in elections, conflict management, political parties, democracy and governance with more than 15 years’ experience and Principal Consultant at Shalestone Elections and Governance Consultants. He focused on conceptual and policy aspects in terms of what COVID-19 means to electoral democracy and democracy in general, looking at what has changed and what will not change.
The second speaker, Professor Annie Chikwanha, is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg and has extensive regional experience on democracy and governance, human security, security sector governance and peace and conflict. She spoke on election security and integrity amid COVID-19. The third panelist was Ms. Emma Kaliya, Vice Chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Support Network and a Human Rights, Gender/Women rights Activist, current Director of the Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre (MHRRC). She focused on the Impact of COVID-19 on gender and Malawi elections. The last panellist was Prof. Adriano Alfredo Nuvunga, who is the Director of the Centro para a Democracia e Desenvolvimento (CDD), a civil society organization working on Democracy, Governance and Human Rights with a strategic focus on Youth Empowerment in Mozambique. He spoke about the insurgence in Mozambique and prospects for peace and how COVID-19 has hampered efforts to resolve the situation.
The meeting generated interest from both local and international elections, democracy and governance practitioners, attracting more than 1500 views on Facebook. The major issues noted include:
- Covid 19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of the democratic process. Democratic deficits have become more pronounced.
- There is danger of social unrest since people cannot afford to stay at home. Subsequently, there is likely to be human rights violations as governments grapple with maintaining peace and order. ICTs have exposed violations in relation to electoral processes and human rights. Election conflict has been minimized to some extent due to silent surveillance by private citizens.
- COVID-19 will affect the legitimacy of elections since it has affected the presence of international observers. It is now solely incumbent upon domestic observers to ensure that they monitor processes and expose any electoral fraud.
- COVID-19 has negatively impacted on women more than men. Women are exposed to the virus during electoral campaigns as they are the frontrunners in most campaign teams.
- The introduction of ICTs in elections may help reduce physical contact during voting. Measures to be put in place will require increased resources both material and financial which most African countries do not have. However, high levels of mistrust and distrust due to historical experiences make citizens resentful of new innovations and there is need to ensure that the systems offer audit trail functions that can be easily tracked by citizen observers.
- Lack of a level playing field in campaigning and access to resources are quite critical issues in the electoral processes if measures to reduce the spread of COVID 19 are put in place. It is apparent that incumbent parties have access to more resources than opposition parties.
In summary, discussants agreed that COVID-19 has introduced a new reality which is likely to be with us for a long time. There is therefore need to balance the health of the people and the protection of democracy. There is need to exercise caution so that governments do not take advantage of the current status quo. Electoral processes have to continue albeit with the necessary measures of protecting lives, to consolidate democracy and sustain peace in Southern Africa.
Join us again tonight as we continue with the Making Elections Make Sense in the COVID-19 Era as we host another intriguing debate, “Interrogating the Feasibility of Conducting Elections In the COVID-19 Era” See below advert for more details.
Zimbabwe Election Support Network is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
Topic: INTERROGATING THE FEASIBILITY OF CONDUCTING ELECTIONS IN THE COVID-19 ERA
Time: Jun 2, 2020 06:00 PM Harare, Pretoria
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 828 2306 0684
Source: Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN)